Those who are bothered by Wednesday's momentous ruling in favor of Northwestern football players' right to unionize have a place to direct their frustration.
The presidents of the universities.
It is the presidents of the universities who allowed coaches to become dictators and players to become employees rather than student-athletes.
It is the presidents who failed for years to do anything but empower coaches through salaries, palatial facilities, and general kowtowing.
It is the presidents who gave control of scholarships to the coaches, rather than keeping the power for themselves and the actual teachers.
The key passage of Wednesday's ruling of the National Labor Relations Board is a reflection of how much reign coaches have, and how far removed college sports are from the educational infrastructure:
"… it cannot be said the Employer's scholarship players are 'primarily students.' The players spend 50 to 60 hours per week on their football duties during a one-month training camp prior to the start of the academic year and an additional 40 to 50 hours per week on those duties during the three- or four-month football season. Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies. In fact, the players do not attend academic classes while in training camp or the first few weeks of the regular season. After the academic year begins, the players still continue to devote 40 to 50 hours per week on football-related activities while only spending about 20 hours per week attending classes."
The so-called "free education" provided by a scholarship comes with an entrance fee: the month of hard labor known as two-a-days. If a player decides he won't start work for the team before he starts his classes, who decides on his future at the school? The head coach. The guy with the whistle determines the college experience for the player, just like the employer determines the labor experience for people with jobs. There is no true recourse, no viable way for the student-athlete to ask the university president to intervene on his behalf.
That's why Wednesday's decision is such a victory for Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and his brethren. This isn't about pay-for-play. It's not about blowing up the system. It's about having a voice in the system. Currently, players don't have a seat at the table; the coaches have the seats, the table, the room, and the building. So if it takes 40 to 50 hours a week to stay in good standing, then that's what the player must contribute. What "Coach" says goes.
Coaches are lauded for this, to an extreme. The most revered college football coach, Nick Saban, is known for his commitment to the "process," when the process has led directly to this decision. The coach chooses the process – even when rules prohibit him from directly overseeing it – and the university presidents endorsed it. If there was some balance in this process, some reasonability in the daily, weekly, and monthly workload, it's quite possible the NLRB decision may have turned out differently.
The evidence for that is right in the ruling, as a comparison is made to a 2004 decision on a case involving Brown University graduate students. In that situation, "the Board went on to consider the amount of time the graduate assistants spent on their educational studies as opposed to their work duties. In finding that they were 'primarily students,' the Board held that 'students serving as graduate student assistants spend only a limited number of hours performing their duties, and it is beyond dispute that their principal time commitment at Brown is focused on obtaining a degree and, thus, being a student.'"
It's clear to everyone that the "principal time commitment" for a football player is football.
The NLRB decision came as a shock to many, but a wise educator saw this coming. That professor, who ironically was also a university president, had a warning for anyone who cared to heed it: "The system went sour a long time ago and is only getting more bilious and more corrupt," he said. "As soon as you pay some students (with an athletic scholarship) to perform an undergraduate extracurricular activity for the revenue purposes of the institution, you have corrupted a set of academic and educational values of the highest order. So it is not surprising to me that all the other abuses follow, as the night the day."
That president was the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, former commissioner of baseball. He made those remarks to Chicago Tribune writer Phil Hersh for a prescient column written in 1989. The flaw in the NCAA's way was clear to Giamatti a quarter-century ago. Kain Colter wasn't even born yet.
"The people who run these institutions don't pick presidents who won't go along with the system," Giamatti told Hersh.
They didn't then, and they don't now. If they did, perhaps there would have been a brake on the rapid acceleration of college sports expansion. Instead, we have flights from Syracuse to Miami for in-conference games. That round-trip is 10 hours by itself; add a three-hour football game and you're closing in on a part-time job without a minute of practice, lifting weights, meetings or training table.
The "What's Next?" part of the NLRB ruling is both thrilling and daunting. There will be ramifications both anticipated and unseen. This decision is unique to Northwestern, and won't apply to public schools like Alabama. It will raise Title IX questions as well.
One question that is sure to come up is whether "employees" on the football field can be terminated. The truth is they can be terminated right now – by the coaches who hold players' fate because administrators ceded too much ground.
If Colter's group proves a check on that imbalance, Wednesday's landmark ruling will benefit student-athletes far beyond any proceeds from an autograph or a jersey.